Philanthropy and Inequality

How Have Black Lives Mattered to American Philanthropy?

Editors’ Note: Karen Ferguson continues the philanthropy & inequality forum with the below post. She is the author of Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism. 

It’s telling that I wrote a book on the Ford Foundation, the largest philanthropy of post-World War II America, yet when I was invited to give a talk last year in a series on the ethic of “care,” I almost trashed the e-mail, making no connection between my work on philanthropy and the idea of “care.” How strange. After all, by definition philanthropy is care in action; philanthropists’ generosity supports social causes that promote the welfare of others. Why didn’t I associate this work with “care”? There are some obvious reasons, including the sheer scale, scope, and bureaucratic complexity of big foundations like Ford, which understandably make it hard to see the care behind institutional practices. However, my work on philanthropic efforts for African Americans has led me to a more particular and insidious answer.

It’s probably no surprise that like other American institutions philanthropy has a history of racial exclusion. For example, even the most progressive Gilded Age philanthropists left African Americans out of their master project to assimilate rural migrants and immigrants into America’s burgeoning industrial economy and society. So, for example, pre-eminent black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois struggled with lack of funding, a single assistant, and indifference from his white scholarly peers in completing his now classic The Philadelphia Negro (1899), a monumental and ground breaking effort to survey and understand the situation and struggles of recent urban migrants. Meanwhile, down the road and a less than a decade later, the Russell Sage Foundation, one of the most enlightened philanthropies of the period, initiated the Pittsburgh Survey, a lavishly funded and staffed, multi-year effort to understand the social impact of industrialism in that immigrant and migrant-filled city that in its findings virtually ignored Pittsburgh’s significant black community. This exclusion points to the fact that for philanthropy, as for white America more generally in this era, it was a given that African Americans lacked the potential to be modern, let alone join the “circle of we,” as historian David Hollinger puts it.

But this is more than a story of passive omission from belonging. Philanthropy has actually made African Americans a major object of concern, only historically it hasn’t been for them but for the problem that they represented as an enslaved and then exploited racial caste in a nation founded on the notion that “all men are created equal.” Throughout American history, the U.S. survived and thrived despite and even because of this fundamental contradiction, but at key points – like the American Revolution and the Civil War and their aftermaths, and the civil rights/black power era – the conflict it engendered over the future of African American citizenship became too glaring to be ignored. At these moments, white philanthropy cared about African Americans, but first and foremost as the putative source of the nation’s so-called “Negro Problem” to be removed, contained, or otherwise managed.

This philanthropic priority found its baldest expression during the era of slavery and Jim Crow. In this period the philanthropic response to African Americans was either to remove them from U.S. soil – like the American Colonization Society’s antebellum scheme to create a black outpost in Liberia – or to quarantine them – like how the guiding lights of Gilded Age philanthropy (Rockefeller, Carnegie, Rosenwald, etc.) launched a comprehensive and coordinated effort to keep African Americans on the farm and in the rural South through the “industrial” education model promoted by Booker T. Washington and others. Despite the benevolent rationale of racial development within which both of these strategies were framed, the vast majority of African Americans rejected these efforts to deal with the “Negro Problem” through black expulsion or containment for what they were – directly antithetical to their belonging in the nation.

That was then. But what happened in the era of modern racial liberalism forged by civil rights victories and the widespread acceptance of racial equality and integration as national ideals? While working on my book Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism, I was surprised to find this philanthropic precedent persisting into the1960s and 1970s. It seemed that despite an ideological sea change Ford’s leaders still weren’t really ready for African Americans to join the “circle of we.”

This continuity was not immediately obvious. In fact, in a bold and high-profile initiative to meet the challenge of the black freedom struggle, the Ford Foundation in this era could legitimately boast that it had fulfilled its promise to create “equal opportunity” and turn “rights into reality,” at least for the best and the brightest in the black community. Ford succeeded admirably in creating a new cadre of black leaders in government, education, business, and the arts, to be integrated into a newly multicultural American ruling class. In fact, I argue that this strategy, including culminating actions like the Foundation’s groundbreaking 1979 choice of a black president, Franklin Thomas, set the stage for other openings in the top ranks of American institutional life, including the election of Barack Obama.

But what about the millions who could not reach these great heights? For this group, Ford’s leaders followed their predecessors by continuing to promote racial development through separatism as a solution to what even in the 1960s they called the “Negro problem.” The Foundation funded dozens of ghetto enrichment programs – community-controlled schools, community development corporations, black arts organizations, street-front academies, etc. – all deliberately all-black and inward looking. Like the promoters of colonization and industrial education, this latter-day balkanization buttressed the age-old notion that black people needed an indeterminate period of separate development before being able to assimilate successfully into the mainstream of American life. As in the past, this rationale preserved the racial status quo by allowing for the continued spatial, social, and economic ghettoization of most African Americans apart from the rest of the nation.

I’m troubled by this history, which raises difficult questions about the ethics of philanthropy, past, present, and future, especially at a moment when thousands of protesters nationwide have been rallying around the cry of “black lives matter.” Digging down, can we say that black lives ever really mattered to white philanthropists?

Can today’s philanthropists honestly claim that, unlike their predecessors, they are primarily concerned with addressing inequities in black Americans’ lives? Or are they following the American philanthropic precedent of seeing African Americans as a “problem” from which the nation needs protection? Do they even see the distinction between these two lenses?

-Karen Ferguson

Karen Ferguson is a Professor of History and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. She is the author ofTop Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (University of Pennsylvania Press 2013), andBlack Politics in New Deal Atlanta (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

One thought on “How Have Black Lives Mattered to American Philanthropy?

  1. Pingback: Fairfax County schools face major budget cuts |

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